Let’s re-scope what we mean by “sustainability”

From Michael S. Hopkins, Editor-in-Chief of MIT Sloan Management Review, interview with Peter Senge-
• Sustainability” is a poor word, too often seen as “environmental”; it’s also a “negative vision”
• Better definition: “What does it mean to live together well?”

Now we are talking! This is what I am getting at. Let’s really look at the problems we are dealing with. What is it we are really trying to do? Check out his interview-http://sloanreview.mit.edu/beyond-green/sustainability-its-not-what-you-think-it-is/

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Why is design critical for the sustainability sector?

If you think about it, success in the sustainability battle in our society…or do I dare say, success in going BEYOND sustainability, is rooted in behavior change. We focus on technology and inventions because it is easy and a tangible context for us to grasp. But really, when it comes down to it, any significant progress we will make in the direction of sustainability will be rooted in fundamental behavior change. Yes technological solutions can help, but only if they drive fundamental behavior change. An electric car sounds great…but if we keep escalating our demand for convenience and access to the rest of the world…won’t we just drive more? If the hindrances to our escalation behavior are taken away…we still are stuck with the same behavior. This will continue to escalate until we hit the next wall, ceiling, fall off a cliff…or whatever Armageddon metaphor you prefer.

This is not to argue that we should become hermits and deprive ourselves of our needs, wants and desires. Quite the contrary, the point is that product, business, and policy designers need to understand that the key to sustainability is to understand these basic human behaviors. We can either work to change behaviors or better yet, understand the behaviors…and work to satisfy them while alleviating their current consequences.

Back to my car issues…let’s take a look CO2 emissions from automobiles. The simple approach is technology. Electric cars for everybody! No CO2 problems! (Assuming we go to all solar and wind power…yes, a diversion of the problem..but I digress). But, sticking with just the car…is that the answer? Yes…if you only dig so deep. On the surface…a consumers “need” a vehicle. So designers/engineers come up with an electric version. But how does that picture change if we dig deeper? Do we need a car? Or do we really need transportation? Do we need transportation or do we really need groceries, to work in our office, and go to the beach on the weekends? If a designer was asked about groceries, the office, or the beach alone, would they end up with an electric car?

Granted, this dive down into people’s needs can go forever…but the point is as you dive into the behavior of an individual and the needs underlying their behavior, the opportunities to solve those needs and broaden immensely. If one goes deep enough, you can short circuit the environmental issue you have been battling and provide a sustainable solution by taking the environmentally offensive issue/product completely off the table. In effect you are not fighting the consumer’s needs or behaviors. Why would you? Needs and behavior’s are hard to change. Instead you are embracing them and just sending the manifestation of that need down a different path.

To me, that is how you provide real change. In future posts, let’s explore how design thinking approaches can help society down that path.

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Design Thinking and Sustainability.

Its has been forever since I last did a blog post. In fact it is safe to say, blog 1.0 never really got off the ground. But since I am currently collaborating with some colleagues on some topics related to the original focus of this blog, I figured I might as well cross pollinate some of my writings. So…I am back…and off to the races.

Since last posting, I have been emersed in a number of sustainability/design thinking contexts. So let’s start off there…
Surprisingly few people have directed this topic directly. I am not sure why. It seems like the two go hand in hand. Grant Young of Zumio has taken a good stab at it (go Grant!). He hits on a huge point that I have been meaning to write about for a while. Sustainability is NOT about technology…ultimately it is about behavior change on an individual and societal level. Design Thinking is rooted in creating a solution that is rooted in a fundamental understanding of human behavior and how a solution maps with human behaviors and needs. To me it has always seemed that there is a huge match here. A potential for a game changing homerun! As Young points out “observational research methods can uncover unconscious behaviours, habits routines, attitudes and beliefs – such factors that have been identified in supporting or influencing unsustainable actions” (page 18). From that point, DT can be used to design product/systems/policies that alter those behaviors.
I will write more along these lines, but in the meantime, take a look at Young’s excellent paper. http://zum.io/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Design-thinking-and-sustainability.pdf

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How do big company concepts apply to the little guy?

To follow up on a comment from my “The Value of Why?” post, I want to share some thoughts on how small businesses can better frame the range of issues at hand and why often big business methods and frameworks often feel irrelevant. 


In his comment to my post, Andrew wrote:

“I think one problem small business people have, especially really small, is figuring out how such things like ‘organizational strategy’ and ‘management strategy’ and ‘people marketing’ apply to them. Sure, I have a business degree and have worked at big companies, but as a pseudo one-person company, it’s easy to write off such terms and concepts as not applicable to me.  And so it becomes easy to write off such valuable concepts and thinking processes because they seem to only apply to bigger organizations”


My thought is that the culprit is not the fact that these concepts don’t apply to a small business but rather that the concepts are often viewed from the wrong perspective of the entrepreneur.


Not to belabor Michael Gerber’s writings, but I think one of his concepts sets the seed for understanding this phenomena.  Gerber describes three universal roles in small businesses. They are the technician (the one that conducts the actual technical work), the manager (the one who oversees the operations of the organization) and the entrepreneur (the one who sets the vision of where the company is going). 


One can certainly agree or disagree with his categorization of roles. I am certain there are many others that could be identified in any particular business, but the main point is that in a small business these “characters” are often rolled up into one person. Specifically, the founder of the company has to take on all of these personalities (whether he or she is comfortable with them or not).  Ignore any of these crucial roles and the business is going to flounder.


While Gerber argues that one has to take on these roles, I will take it one step further and argue that it is crucial for the entrepreneur not only to act out these roles but also be aware when he is doing it.  It is also crucial to be able to comfortably flip back on forth between them. I believe that confusion on the relevance of “big business” concepts occurs when one is unaware that he is thinking from the perspective of one role while considering a business concept that applies to a different roll.


Let’s take an obvious example.  Let’s say you own a small restaurant. You have a small staff to do some tasks, but for most of the time you are heavily involved in the “doing” of the business. You are the chef, the host, and the dishwasher.   Those roles are pretty clear and it is obvious to you when you are in each role.  Thus it is pretty easy to conceptualize how different strategies and methods are required for these separate aspects of the business.  Ideas and concepts on how to be friendlier to customers seem relevant to you because you are well aware that at times you have to be the restaurant host. In fact, I would speculate I could talk to you about this while we are sitting in the kitchen cooking (working as the chef) and you would have absolutely no issue with it.  You understand that you are not ALWAYS the chef and sometimes you are the host so talking about how to be cordial to your guests seems relevant.


But now let’s look at this same restaurant on a different level.  The roles that I just described are very clear and obviously identified. You always know which one you are doing and they are quite mutually exclusive.  On the other hand, the more conceptual roles of “Technician”, “Entrepreneur” and “Manager” are often not as clear cut, though equally as vital for the operation of the business (as a side note, Gerber would classify the chef, host, and dishwasher all as the duties of the “Technician”).  It is very difficult for an entrepreneur to be cognizant of when he is in each role or even the need for each role.


This, I believe, is the situation where vital business concepts get tossed aside by the entrepreneur as something only for “big business” and “not relevant to me”.  If the entrepreneur is acting as a technician (e.g. only focusing on being a chef, host and dishwasher) and not aware of the need to shift to the “entrepreneur” roll, any talk of long term strategies and growth would seem silly.  The technician does not need to deal with issues of marketing the restaurant. To him people need to be greeted, food needs to be cooked and dishes need to be washed.  The same would be true if a business founder always was in the “entrepreneur” mode and always focusing on the vision of the company. In this situation, discussions on the best methods to conduct tactics (e.g. dishwashing) would seem silly and irrelevant because to that individuals mind that is not the issue.  The issue is how to grow for the long term.


Put another way; consider the first example of the chef, host, and dishwasher.  Let’s say our restaurant owner had short term memory problems. He can only be aware of his immediate roll.  Suddenly a discussion in the kitchen, when he is in the chef role, about how to better more friendly to customers seems silly.  You could even imagine him saying “That stuff is just theory. It is only relevant to BIG restaurants!”


In big business it is easier to understand how concepts fit in with the company.  There are more people to carry out rolls.  Entire departments are build around the concepts of the “Entrepreneur”, “Manager” and “Technician” (Corporate Strategy, Operations, Product Development are just some examples).   Of course these concepts seem relevant in this situation. How could they not? Individuals have title and job descriptions that are entirely build on single business concepts (e.g. Chief Financial Office, Chief Technology Office, Chief Operating Office)


The key to the smaller business owner is to be aware that these rolls (and many others) are often hidden and all rolled up into himself or his small staff.  Thus “big business” concepts often can be mismatched to the wrong perspective set.  The challenge is to leverage the many valuable business tools that are available by first learning to be fluid with one’s perspectives and see your company from a different, if not multiple, angles.

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The Value of “Why?”

I want to reflect on the thoughts gathered from Michael Gerber’s book, E-myth Revisited. Based on my experience, whether it is in the context of project management, a design/user-research project, or small business, the most common struggle for people is to put their tactical actions into a strategic, purposeful context.


The easy, instinctive approach to a business is to focus on product. “Build it and they will come” tends to be the mantra. While marketing, logistics, finance ( etc.) are not ignored, they are treated as supporting aspects of the product. In reality the entire business system is the product and each component is inextricably linked. It seems to me the challenge for the entrepreneur is to view the business as a system and make decisions in the context of how they impact the entire system.



In his book, Michael Gerber, does an excellent job at presenting a structure on how to frame one’s thinking about a business.


1. Your Primary Aim

2. Your Strategic Objective

3. Your Organizational Strategy

4. Your Management Strategy

5. Your People Marketing

6. Your Marketing Strategy

7. Your Systems Strategy


At first glance this seems like a logical “top down” approach to structuring a business. The subtle component that I believe can be easily overlooked by readers is that this is not an approach that starts from a broad strategic point and builds down the granular details. In this context granularity is set aside (something that is difficult for many people to do as there is comfort in specific tangibles). A closer examination of each of these steps reveals a nested hierarchy of strategies. Each step, though slightly more specific than the other still holds on to the holistic perspective of the organization as the product and maintains a higher context of purpose for ones actions. Yes, tactical details need to be worked out, but often the solution to the problem is the ability to maintain perspective on the proverbial forest not the trees.



So how does one keep strategy in mind in their day to day operations? And how do you prevent falling into a mentality of vague lofty strategies that have little impact on reality? I believe the key skill to mastering the right balance of perspective is the simple utilization of the basic question “Why?” As one of my former colleagues would often insightfully point out to me, it’s all about keeping a “beginners mind”.



The concept of beginners mind is pulled from the design strategy world, but I think it is applicable to entrepreneurs. The key to this approach is to be able to constantly ask “why” as you take action throughout the day. In this context , think of your favorite two year old child asking “why”, not your favorite philosopher. While the philosopher sits on a rock, chin in his hand, pondering the “whys” of the universe he remains stuck in place, sitting on a rock. Your favorite two year old is out exploring, taking action, while still pestering everyone and anyone with her questions. It is her only way to link her actions to an overall sense of direction and purpose. Nothing is taken for granted. Everything needs to be linked to other things. Most importantly, while she confidently takes actions in her world she has no fear of admitting her lack of knowledge. Asking “Why?” for her is a tool to build knowledge and strength, not an admission of defeat.


Perhaps we can all learn something from the young minds around us.

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